How can large parties, parades, celebrations, and holidays help the nation? By what culturist means did we form our nation after the Revolution? What were the dangers for our young republic and how did parades help to avert them? Are these techniques applicable to our current nation? The fascinating and important answers to these questions are answered in David Waldstreicher’s “In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776 – 1820.” Since the book is somewhat dense and dry, allow me to take a stab at conveying his answers.
Waldstreicher puts public parades, celebrations, and holidays at the forefront of nation building. We took the celebration of the British King’s Birthday and turned it into the Fourth of July. We later added Washington’s Birthday and Thanksgiving. These celebrations were created by collective and conscious effort. We needed a sense of belonging and people saw that these would work. The celebrations got lots of media (at that time newspaper) attention. The holiday celebrations were copied around the country. These patriotic holidays were fun and they successfully gave all Americans something in common. These culturist creations of commonality were a win-win situation.
The values behind these holidays were also consciously fostered. Drunken mobs can be a dangerous thing. Furthermore, since we had a revolution against elites, we had an aversion to leadership. How to create a healthy sense of a public and leadership? The elite endeavored to do so by consciously cultivating the vision of an aristocracy of virtue. Virtue was to be defined by an attitude of self-denial in service of the public. By making this a prerequisite for leadership the Founding Fathers confirmed their right to rule. They did this by having responsible celebrations where they toasted the nation with reserve and eloquence. Via newspapers this also set the tone for what good behavior meant for the populace. Both leaders and the public thus imbibed that the route to respectability involved celebrating your patriotism with some restraint.
Though the parades, holidays and public celebrations had to have some decorum, they were not without political overtones or discord. The Stamp Act was celebrated with major mock funerals based on those they used to have for Kings. Federalists held parades for ratification of the Constitution and reporting them as orderly. Anti-ratification celebrations soon joined the fray with their parades and public celebrations and tried to show themselves as orderly too. These political parties set the tone for having orderly differences and displaying your feeling in the streets. Later, political parties had huge celebrations on holidays. Both parties, though, tried to show they represented the nation, were not into self-interest and studiously avoided the impression that they wanted division. As long as we all agreed we were Americans, holidays could be partisan and civic.
Thus, Waldstreicher tells us, we created the holidays and political rules of debate that we use today. Public celebrations have a long pedigree as nation building tools. When we add public art to the toolkit we can really create a sense of national unity, meaning and belonging. If such projects are created locally, civic pride and trust also be fostered. If you think celebrations lead to conformity, think again. While all in partisan celebrations will claim they represent America, they are still partisans. Sides parading for their vision for America is democracy in action. The line between parades and protests need not be so clear. Celebrating our revolutionary heroes can only disturb the sleep of potential tyrants. And when we do celebrate our versions of such heroes and events with holidays, parades and parties we not only have fun and send political messages, we can feel tied to our patriotic culturist predecessors. We should celebrate the culturist history that Waldstreicher depicts with parades, holidays, and street parties.